Malawi – Malawi’s constitutional court has annulled last year’s controversial election, which saw President Peter Mutharika narrowly re-elected.
The judge found there had been widespread irregularities in the 21 May vote.
This is the first election to be legally challenged since Malawi’s independence in 1964. A new vote will take place within 151 days.
There have been regular anti-government protests since the election.
The court ruled that Mr Mutharika will stay in power until a new election takes place.
“We hold that the first respondent (Mutharika) was not duly elected as president of Malawi on May 21, 2019,” ruled lead judge Healey Potani.
“We hereby nullify the results of the presidential elections and we order for a fresh election” within 150 days, he added, sparking jubilation in the court.
The outcome was welcomed with festive cheer in the second city of Blantyre, where residents in impoverished townships set off fireworks.
“I’m delighted. I am short of words really but this is a bright new day for Malawi, ” said an university student Laura Banda.
“I hope this is a turning point for the country,” the 22-year-old added.
But opposition candidates Lazarus Chakwera, who came second, and Saulos Chilima, who finished third, went to court to argue that the election was not fair.
They said the way the election was conducted was full of irregularities.
The judges, who arrived in court in the capital, Lilongwe, under military escort, upheld the complaint on Monday.
According to the official results, Mr Chakwera, who claims he won the election, garnered 35.4% of the vote as the flag bearer for the Malawi Congress Party.
Mr Chilima, a former ally of the president, got 20.2%. He was the candidate for the UTM.
There is a high level of anxiety in the country following months of tense clashes between the police and opposition supporters.
Many schools were closed and some public transport had been suspended ahead of Monday’s court decision.
In court, lawyers for the losing candidates said that correction fluid – known by the brand name Tipp-Ex – had been used on some of the tallying forms sent in by polling stations.
The changes were made after they had been signed by party agents, they said.
“It is clear that the use of Tippex (correction fluid) was employed by (MEC) officers to hide votes,” said judge Ivy Kamanga, taking a turn reading an abridged version of the 500-page judgment — which nevertheless took more than nine hours to deliver.
“Use of Tippex was unjustifiable and an irregularity,” she said, adding that the way in which the MEC “dealt with the alterations was not in line with the law, hence it was irregular”.
The lawyers also said that in some cases polling officials sent in the wrong copy of the results sheet to the main tallying centre.
They also found some mathematical errors in a small number of cases.
Though in each case there were not a huge number of errors, the lawyers said that the evidence pointed to a flawed process.
“It’s a seismic decision,” said Danwood Chirwa, a Malawian law professor lecturing at the University of Cape Town in South Africa.
“The judges were called upon to reset the state of democracy in the country: they’ve risen to the challenge, and they have re-inaugurated our democracy,” he added.
The Malawi Electoral Commission (MEC) defended its handling of the vote as being in keeping with the law.
It said that on the few forms where correction fluid had been found, it had not been used to change a result, but to alter procedural information that had been incorrectly entered.
The commission said it had not supplied the Tipp-Ex.